Image from Harper's Weekly depicting the Battle of Honey Springs - July 17, 1864
In mid July of 1863, a critical battle occurred in the western theater of the Civil War. And in a few days, many Civil War enthusiasts will be commemorating the assault on Ft. Wagner, however, attention should be given to a major battle that occurred in the west---the day before. I am referring to the Battle of Honey Springs.
In Indian Territory in the heart of the Creek Nation, the 1st Kansas Colored comprised of former slaves from Arkansas, Indian Territory, and Missouri, engaged the enemy at Honey Springs. This battle is significant, because these black soldiers found themselves in an historic situation---they were in open confrontation with American Indian Confederate Units. Some of these soldiers had been slaves in the same tribe---their parents haven been taken west on the Trail of Tears.
The Indian Confederate units were: The First and Second Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the First and Second Creek Mounted Rifles, the First Choctaw Mounted Rifles and the Chickasaw Mounted Rifles.
Black soldiers in this battle were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, in addition to black soldiers of the Indian Home Guards.
The actions of the 1st Kansas Colored helped to secure Ft. Gibson as a Union fort and to drive confederate forces, including many of their former Indian slave holders farther south.
In the 1930s a former slave, Lucinda Davis described her memories of the Battle. She was a slave in the Creek Nation not far from the battle field. Many of the male slaves had already left for Kansas to join the Union Army. She was a mere child, tending to one of the children. She described how she saw Indian warriors riding quickly to the battlefield, with their gray uniforms and the "cris-cross" on their flag:
I never forgit de day dat battle of de Civil War happen at Honey Springs! Old Master jest had de green corn all in, and us had been having a time gitting it in, too. Jest de women was all dat was left, 'cause de men slaves had all slipped off and left out.
My uncle Abe done got up a bunch and gone to de North wid dem to fight, but I didn't know den whar he went. He was in dat same battle, and after de War dey called him Abe Colonel. Most all de slaves 'round dat place done gone off a long time before dat wid dey masters when dey go wid old man Gouge and a man named McDaniel.
We had a big tree in de yard, and a grape vine swing in it for de little baby "Istidji", and I was swinging him real early in de morning befo' de sun up..... I was swinging de baby, and all at once I seen somebody riding dis way 'cross dat prairie ___ jest coming a_kiting and a_laying flat out on his hoss. When he see de house he begin to give de war whoop. "Eya_a_a_a_he_ah!" When he git close to de house he holler to git out de way 'cause dey gwine be a big fight, and old Master start rapping wid his cane and yelling to git some grub and blankets in de wagon right now!....Den jest as we starting to leave here come something across dat little prairie sho' nuff! We know dey is Indians de way dey is riding, and de way dey is all strung out. Dey had a flag, and it was all red and had a big criss_cross on it dat look lak a saw horse. De man carry it and rear back on it when de wind whip it, but it flap all 'round de horse's head and de horse pitch and rear lak he know something going happen, sho!
After the Indian soldiers came, later came white confederate soldiers as well. She saw light and heavy artillery roll by.
'Bout dat time it turn kind of dark and begin to rain a little, and we git out to de big road and de rain come down hard. It rain so hard for a little while dat we jest have to stop de wagon and set dar, and den long come more soldiers dan I ever see befo'. Dey all white men, I think, and dey have on dat brown clothes dyed wid walnut and butternut, and old Master say dey de Confederate soldiers. Dey dragging some big guns on wheels and most de men slopping 'long in de rain on foot.
When the old master orders them to take refuge they go into the country side as their home was not far fro Honey Springs. She then describes the retreat and the Union army in pursuit:
We git in a big cave in dat cliff, and spend de whole day and dat night in dar, and listen to de battle going on. Dat place was about half_a_mile from de wagon depot at Honey Springs, and a little east of it.
We can hear de guns going all day, and along in de evening here come de South side making for a getaway. Dey come riding and running by whar we is, and it don't make no difference how much de head men hollers at 'em dey can't make dat bunch slow up and stop.
After while here come de Yankees, right after 'em, and dey goes on into Honey Springs and pretty soon we see de blaze whar dey is burning de wagon depot and de houses.
......Den long come lots of de Yankee soldiers going back to de North, and dey looks purty wore out, but dey is laughing and joshing and going on.
She goes on to describe how she and other slaves were taken farther south farther away from Union lines. Her testimony is included here, because it is one of the very few (if not the only) account of a battle from the perspective of a civilian. In her case---from the perspective of a young black girl, held in bondage by Creek Indians. She was an eye witness to some of these events because the lived on the Texas road---the main road to Honey Springs. (She was interviewed in the 1937s as part of the WPA Slave Narratives. )
Thanks to Lucinda Davis, and her memories of life as a slave in the Creek Nation, this witness to a critical Civil War battle and her memories of it having lived so close by, this small portion of what became a major Union victory is known.
Lucinda Davis, Creek Freedwoman
Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society
More on the Battle of Honey Springs can be found at Civil War Today.